Despite playing such a pivotal role in the counterterrorism strategy of the U.S., there’s a surprising lack of public information about drones—pilotless military aircrafts that are controlled autonomously by computers or remote pilots.
President George W. Bush began using the unmanned aircrafts in 2004, in situations where sending a pilot was too risky—largely in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where many al-Qaida operatives live. Under the Obama administration, the practice has more than doubled, spreading to Somalia and Yemen and calling into question both the legality and ethics of using such machines.
What makes this war tactic even more controversial is that U.S. officials rarely mention civilian casualties as a result of drone strikes. When they do, independent reports indicate those numbers to be highly underreported. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, from June 2004 to mid-October 2012, available data indicates that drone strikes killed between 2,577 and 3,346 people in Pakistan alone. Of these victims, between 474 and 884 were civilians—including 176 children.
Even for survivors, the emotional trauma of a drone’s presence is long-lasting. Each aircraft can hover in a static post for up to 17 hours, giving remote troops real-time feedback and data as well as the ability to follow or attack suspected insurgents. With drones often within eyesight for days at a time, many civilians live in constant fear.
While the government is quick to tout the benefits of drone weapons, civilian experience tells another story.
“Drones are always on my mind. It makes it difficult to sleep. They are like a mosquito. Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them. You know they are there.”
—Mohammad Kausar (anonymized name), as quoted in the Stanford/NYU “Living Under Drones” report
“Drones are becoming synonymous with U.S. counterterrorism strategy. But unlike in regular wars, policymakers are failing to ask the hard questions here, including whether other tactics or strategies are more appropriate than drone strikes and whether U.S. expansion of drone operations is causing more harm than good.”
—Sarah Holewinski, executive director of Center for Civilians in Conflict